Is This As Good As It Gets?
There was a time in my life when I would not slow down long enough to experience the pain of anything. I kept moving like a whirling dervish, though not in any conscious commitment to connect to, strengthen, or glorify anything, like the real Sufi practitioners, but in an avoidance of facing the truth. In a default setting that assumed movement was a way to outrun difficult emotions and challenges. It’s no surprise that one of the symptoms I’m dealing with is inflammation. If being ill has taught me anything, it has taught me not only to slow down, but to stop. Stop avoiding and stop chasing. To appreciate what is, right now. It’s as if being sick is one big metaphysical lesson in the power of being present, and the paradox that stillness allows for the acceptance of change.
I’ve recently started studying The Wisdom of Insecurity. I say “studying” because you can’t just browse or skim or casually follow Alan Watts’ writing, like a bedtime novel. Reading Watts is like thinking you have a masters degree and realizing you’re back in grade school. You must open yourself up to having a beginner’s mind and realizing that what you know may be insufficient, irrelevant, or even wrong. For me, this is a sacred experience. A rare portal to the unknown and unknowable that literally fills me with awe.
What we know for sure is that the universe in constantly expanding. Life is constantly changing. And yet we live life trying to get somewhere and pin down something. We strive with the assumption that the attaining of goals will make us happy and secure. When I lose weight, when I get the job, when I have so much money, when I find the right partner, when I have kids, when the kids leave, when I get a divorce, when I’m given a promotion, when, when, when. Some goals seem to have particular merit. For me, the biggest current goal is getting well. A worthy goal that I keep, but that I simultaneously keep in check. Because living as if a goal will solve something, is living in an illusion that “success” is an experience that can be captured and contained. Even more problematic, it is actually living in opposition to life itself. As Watts says, “...there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.”
For a long time, I was upset by my illness. I struggled with my inability to work or make plans or strive for future accomplishments. Sickness was so antithetical to my driven, perfectionist, type-A, go-getter, overachieving personality, that I felt like I was dying. And I was. I was experiencing an ontological death - the ceasing of existing as the person I knew myself to be. When I was struggling with the uncertainty of when I would get better, when I was setting future goals for when I would be well enough to “get back to my life”, all I experienced was failure and disappointment. But when I began to deal in the here and now, my suffering disappeared. I stopped living in a made-up future designed by comparison to the past, and I started living in the present. What, I began to ask myself, if this is as good as it gets?
Despite my comparative lack of productivity, I’ve never been happier. Instead of striving for accomplishments, I am focusing on excellence. On doing my best and being my best, right now, with I’ve got. Because excellence is a reward in and of itself. And excellence happens now...and then now. As Watts so eloquently puts it, “...the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath.” When it comes to my goals, I now have them but they don’t have me. If I attain them, I will be happy. But if I don’t, I will be happy. Because happiness exists inside of living consistently with my values and my self-declared purpose. When it comes to an endgame, I’m not holding my breath.